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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Dido and Aeneas (1689) [55:29]
Nicola Wemyss (Dido); Matthew Baker (Aeneas); Francine van der Heijden (Belinda); Penni Clarke (Second Woman); Helen Rasker (Sorceress); Maaike Poorthuis (First Enchantress); Yong-Hee Kim (Second Enchantress); Rowena Simpson (Spirit); Richard Zook (Sailor)
The Masque of Cupid and Bacchus (from “Timon of Athens”)
Pauline Graham (First Nymph); Nicola Wemyss (Second Nymph); René Steur (Follower of Cupid); Penni Clarke (Cupid); Marc Pantus (Bacchus); Mitchell Sandler (Follower of Bacchus); Hugo Naessens (2nd Follower of Bacchus); Richard Zook (3rd Follower of Bacchus); Joost van der Linden (4th Follower of Bacchus)
John Ernest GALLIARD (1687-1749)
Pan and Syrinx (1726 version)
Johannette Zomer (Syrinx); Marc Pantus (Pan); Nicola Wemyss (Diana); Mitchell Sandler (Sylvan); Richard Zook (Nymph)
Musica ad Rhenum/Jed Wentz
Dido and Aeneas recorded 13th-14th September 2004, Church of Maria Minor, Utrecht, The Netherlands, other items recorded 25th-27th August 2004, Muziekzentrum Vredenburg, Utrecht, The Netherlands
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 92464 [55:29 + 77:08]

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Brilliant Classics have set up a large catalogue in a very short time. For the most part they have done this by reissuing, on licence, a range of stereo recordings from the recent past which the copyright owners had evidently judged to be of no further interest to them. Since the large discography of Purcell’s brief operatic masterpiece must have contained a number of recordings potentially available to Brilliant Classics, it is heartening that they have instead recorded a brand new version. Heartening, not so much because they have produced a “Dido” to cap all others – they haven’t - but they have produced a very attractive one – but heartening on account of the overall package. 

Since “Dido” is too short for a whole evening at the opera, over the years, a number of solutions to the double bill have been tried, without any of them really sticking. I have never heard Galliard’s “Pan and Syrinx” suggested. Indeed I had never even heard of it before, but as a light-hearted exploitation of a classical theme and a comic counterpart to Purcell’s sombre masterpiece it has a lot to be said for it. Galliard was of German origin but settled in England in 1706 and made several attempts at all-sung English operas which are generally judged to have been unsuccessful. If by this it is meant that he did not achieve a popular success such as to overturn the fortunes of Handel’s Italian operas, as did John Gay with his slightly later “The Beggar’s Opera” (1729), then history must judge him to have been a failure. However, while Gay’s work was merely a compilation of popular themes, Galliard proves to have been a composer of considerable powers. It is perhaps in the recitatives that we realize he hadn’t the genius of Purcell – but then “Dido” has a sense of through-composed narration far ahead of its times. Galliard provides an unfailing series of typically baroque arias – by turns gently flowing or busy and lively – and at times goes considerably beyond this. Pan’s aria “Surprizing change!”, with its exquisite recorder obbligato, strikes a deeper note and Syrinx’s “How sweet the warbling linnet” provides a virtuoso soprano aria with an equally virtuoso flute obbligato that compares, for resource and inventiveness, very favourably to better-known examples of the kind. At the other extreme, Pan’s “Whilst your harmony fills” is entirely in unison with the accompaniment, to impressively mysterious effect and nicely contrasted with the full harmony of the chorus which follows.

All the same, when Purcell’s “Masque of Cupid and Bacchus” begins, it is impossible not to note the difference between talent and sheer genius. Purcell’s invention is here almost riotously extravagant, revelling in the unexpected, and what a range of mood and colour he packs into little more than fifteen minutes. The piece was new to me (apart from the opening “Symphony”, a typical “ground” which also exists in a version for harpsichord solo) and it quite bowled me over.

I came to this album after hearing a version of another famous “contralto opera” on a classical theme, Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice” (the French version on Naxos) in which I felt that the period forces had scrubbed the opera too clean, removing all emotional weight. Jed Wentz has a far more involving approach; if Dido’s first aria “Ah! Belinda” is rather more urgent than used to be traditional there is no lack of grave and tragic beauty in the famous lament. He sometimes asks the chorus for a degree of rubato that surely could not have been possible in Purcell’s own pre-conductor times but this is undoubtedly a well-thought interpretation, notable also for the vitality of the dances and choruses.

None of the singers is known to me and, since they all seem to have young voices, I get the idea this is the sort of “opera laboratory” production typically attended by post-diploma students in search of experience and maybe a stepping-stone to higher things. The great thing about such laboratories is that there is plenty of time for rehearsal so the result is a real ensemble performance which seems to invite a generalized commendation rather than individual analysis; not everyone has his technique in perfect order yet and I would hesitate to predict stardom for anyone, but they all add up to an enjoyable whole.

All the same, a word of particular praise seems in order for Nicola Wemyss, who does not disappoint in a role (Dido) which has been sung by some very famous singers, and Johanette Zomer who makes a very creditable attempt at the virtuoso role of Syrinx.

I did not notice until the end of “Dido” that one Dr. Julia Muller is named as “Restauration (sic!) English coach”. To tell the truth, I had not noticed anything in particular about the English being sung except for a tendency on the part of at least two singers to pronounce “Fate” as “feet”, the Spirit’s American-style pronunciation of “command” and a thickly Teutonic accent from the Sorceress. Regarding “command”, since the librettist made it rhyme with “land”, it may be that modern American (especially northern American) actually conserves traits of Restoration English (whole linguistic studies have been made on this matter, which there is hardly time to go into here). As for the foreignness of the Sorceress, basically it stems from a tendency to sound the “R” in words like “sisters”, “Carthage”, etc. This is something which survives today most strongly in Cornwall, and again in parts of America, and I say “survives” since it may well be that in Restoration English these Rs were all sounded. But in that case, why does only the Sorceress sound them? In other words, was this particular singer an intractable case for the coach (an accent so foreign that there was no way of getting rid of it) or her star pupil?

The set comes with a note by Wentz and the full libretto; all members of the orchestra and chorus are listed and the recording is exemplary. In these chronometer-obsessed days I think it rather heartening to find a recording which lists no timings whatsoever, whether total disc timings, those of single works or those of the separate tracks. The trouble is, our Editor is very strict about returning to the sender any reviews that omit this information, so maybe this review will never see the light of day!

As I said at the outset, this fresh and attractive “Dido” may not be the greatest ever, but I do recommend most strongly the overall package; the wonderful Purcell Masque is worth the asking price ten times over on its own.

Christopher Howell



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